October 23 | Locusts and swords, dreams and visions



The video includes the scripture and the sermon.


Sermon | Locusts and swords, dreams and visions
Text: Joel 1:1-7; 2:21-31
Speaker: Joel Miller


Of the 150+ Sundays in the three-year lectionary cycle, exactly one includes a passage from the book of Joel.  I take no personal offense at this.  I’ve always liked that my biblical namesake is considered to be one of the “minor prophets.”  It does take some of the pressure off.  Or as fellow CMCer Joel Call recently said of the name, it’s like an indy label.  I’m waiting for his band “Joel and the minor prophets.”  Add in small business owner Joel Copeland, and we’re kind of everywhere around here.          

One of my first Bible memory verses of my own choosing was Joel chapter 1 verse 1.  “The word of the Lord came to Joel, son of Pethuel.”  I had no idea who Pethuel was, and still don’t, but I kind of liked the sound of the word of the Lord coming to Joel.  With that and John 11:35, “Jesus wept,” I was pretty sure there were at least two Bible verses I could remember word for word.

Of the many times I’ve preached through the lectionary, I don’t think I’ve ever focused on the three-chapter book of Joel.  So today is the day.  It’s a much less daunting task to do in one sermon than, say, the book of Mark.  

If you’ve been around church a while, chances are you’ve heard this prophet referenced.  Every Pentecost Sunday we read from Acts chapter 2.  The story takes place about 50 days after Jesus’ death and resurrection, after his ascension, when a group of Jesus followers are all gathered together in Jerusalem.  Suddenly they hear the sound of a fierce wind fill the entire house.  Separate flames of fire appear over each and every one of them.  They all start speaking in different languages, and pilgrims in the streets outside who have come from around the world for the Pentecost festival hear them speaking in their own native languages. 

What in the world is going on?  That’s the question Acts records everyone asking. 

It’s Peter who stands up, among the commotion, and ventures some commentary.  Only he doesn’t start by using his own words.  He starts with words spoken centuries before.  Words that seem to be coming to life before their very eyes.  Words spoken by the prophet Joel: “In the last days I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  29 Even on the male and female slaves, in those days I will pour out my spirit.”  

Christian theology would continue to develop the idea that the last days of which the prophets had spoken had come.  That Jesus’s crucifixion at the hands of the Roman state and God’s defeat of the death-dealing forces of domination by raising Jesus up had ushered in a new era.  It’s the era when we no longer need to wait for the prophesies to be fulfilled because they are being fulfilled all around us and we are part of that fulfillment. 

So said Peter.  So teaches the church.  So dreamed the prophet Joel. 

But Joel doesn’t begin with this dream.  After that opening line about the word of the Lord coming to him, the prophet begins with a Paul Revere type warning:

Hear this, O elders;
    give ear, all inhabitants of the land!
Has such a thing happened in your days
    or in the days of your ancestors?
3 Tell your children of it,
    and let your children tell their children,
    and their children another generation.
Only rather than “the British are coming,” for Joel it’s “the locusts are coming.”  Or rather, the locusts have come.
What the cutting locust left,
    the swarming locust has eaten;
what the swarming locust left,
    the hopping locust has eaten;
and what the hopping locust left,
    the destroying locust has eaten.

In the original language it’s not entirely clear whether the prophet is referring to different species of locusts, or different stages of the same locust swarm.  What is loud and clear, is that they have left utter devastation.  What survives the first wave, gets devoured in the second wave.  What remains gets taken in the next wave.  And even the crumbs of that get wiped out in the final wave.

One of the unique features of Joel is that there are no clear time references.  No mention of who was king at the time of the writing, or high priest, or any specific socio-political events or foreign armies that might give a clue. 

There are hints that it is from the Persian period – some loan words, some quoting of other prophets – potentially making it one of the last prophetic books to be recorded.  But the author might be intentional about not wanting to be time-bound – using language that can apply to many circumstances. 

To actual locust swarms that brought famine in Israel at different points – or on the US prairies in the 19th century.  To armies that attack civilians and destroy food reserves.  Like the Assyrians or Babylonians or what’s happening today in Ukraine.

American Indians might see their experience in this passage as something like this: 
What the settlers have left the diseases have taken. 
What the diseases have left, the broken treaties have taken. 
What the broken treaties have left the trails of tears have taken. 
What the trails of tears have left, the residential schools have taken.  

If you have experienced a great loss in your life, or a deconstruction of your faith, you can relate to this sense of even the smallest things you thought you could hold on to when everything else has fallen away, even those things or ideas are as nothing.

This is grief and loss in its most raw, its most exposed and vulnerable form.  Grief upon grief.  Loss upon loss.  When you’ve come to your end and there is simply nothing left to lose.

This is how the book of the prophet Joel begins, seven verses in.  The beginning is an ending.  But it’s not THE end.      

What do you do when it’s all over, but it’s not over?  Well, you lament, verse 8.  “Be shocked” v. 11.  Dress for a funeral and grieve, v. 13.  declare a fast, verse 14.  And, importantly, also in verse 14, you call a special assembly.  “Gather the elders and all the land’s people.” 

Of all the research and writing coming out these days on trauma, one of the things that has caught my attention is that people tend to experience fewer signs of trauma when it is a collective experience.  Trauma, we’re learning, is not the experience itself, but the way an experience lodges itself in our bodies and psyches.  Trauma is not what happened.  It’s what lingers.  It’s not the event, it’s the imprint of the event on us.  And the imprint of a devastating event seems to be different when experienced collectively.

One example is New Yorkers and 9/11.  The violence of 9/11 was a collective experience, a city under attack, a country’s full attention.  There were public events to tell the stories, countless conversations about it in living rooms and bars and church fellowship halls.  It was a potentially traumatic event that impressed itself within those close to it in less traumatic ways than one might expect.  But an individual who has their own apartment broken into while they’re away at work may live for years with the trauma of feeling unsafe in their own home. 

The prophet Joel paints a picture in which even the cattle and wild animals are crying out with all the people because of the ecological devastation all around them.  That’s not what makes the crops and fruit trees grow back, but it is what helps them all survive until they do.  When the locusts, or whatever, have taken everything, the prophet calls for inter-species solidarity, which imprints itself in such a way that leaves open the possibility of restoration. 

Part of Joel’s vision of where all this is headed is hard to stomach.  

In chapter 3 Joel envisions a future in which the Lord sits in judgment on all the nations that have brought harm on Judah.  Every evil from the nations gets returned on them.  Tyre and Sidon and Philistia, Egypt and Edom.  The tables are turned as they all get their due and Judah thrives. 

The people of Judah, also called the children of Zion, are enlisted in a holy war.  You’ve perhaps heard the expression “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks”?  It’s proclaimed by the prophets Isaiah and Micah as a vision of peace, the weapons of war transformed into farming implements.  We have a sculpture celebrating this as you enter the building from the parking lot entrance –a gift from our sister church in Armenia, Colombia of a gun becoming a garden ho. 

Well Joel reverses this.  He says, in chapter 3 verse 10: “Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears.”  Joel actually says that.  I feel like I should apologize or something.  Bad Mennonite. 

At its best this speaks to the need for folks who have undergone trauma to be protected from further harm, to have the armor and shields and resources they need to not be re-traumatized.  At its worst, it’s an example of hurt people hurting people, something all too familiar no matter the time period.

It seems to me that if trauma is experienced communally it may show up less in individuals as trauma, but can show up as collective trauma.  Our misguided war of terror and surveillance state are direct results of 9/11 that look a whole lot like collective trauma.  Plowshares becoming swords.

But the prophet Joel has another vision, one that doesn’t depend on peoples remaining eternal enemies.

It starts with the land and the animals.  They are told to rejoice, to not be afraid.  God is restoring the earth from the soil up.  From the seeds out.  And the people will be abundantly satisfied with all they need, all that the locusts took from them. 

This culminates in the Spirit, the energy and breath of God, being poured out on all people, enslaved and free.  Daughters and son will prophesy.  Old men and women will dream dreams.  Young women and men will see visions. All gender expressions, all ages, all demographics – filled with the Spirit.   

It’s as if it’s the destiny of everyone to be a minor prophet.  Every voice honored.  Every dream and vision adding richness and texture to the fabric of the community.  The Spirit not the private property of any priestly class but continuously poured out like a waterfall on every living being. 

It’s like a swarm of locusts in the reverse, each one planting, creating, flowering, adding beauty to the landscape. 

Of all the prophetic utterances available at the time, this is the vision Peter chooses to proclaim when the church is coming into being.  Here on the other side of crucifixion.  On the resurrection side of loss.  When the last days have arrived, a new era is being born, and the Spirit of the risen Christ is on the loose.

For those with eyes to see, and ears to listen, it’s already here.